When it comes to artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and robotics, terrifying headlines are everywhere: doomsday reports predicting that robots will force humans out of jobs, and experts like Elon Musk claiming AI could spark the beginning of World War 3.
It all sounds a bit Terminator, but is Skynet really going to make us all jobless and destroy humanity as we know it? Well, according to the current evidence, there’s no need to head to the nuclear shelters just yet.
In fact, it’s likely that the advancement and implementation of AI will create more jobs, not fewer.
Let’s look at the evidence.
If the robots were already starting to take over, we’d see some indication, but official statistics show that unemployment levels in the UK are the lowest they’ve been since 1975. In the three months to June 2017, the jobless rate fell by 57,000 to 4.4%.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that as more tasks become automated, that figure won’t begin to drop, but it does demonstrate that AI is not stealing jobs from real people yet. Currently, AI is designed to make small improvements and provide us with more data than ever before, not replacing humans, but helping us to become more efficient and productive.
Any changes to the job market from AI and automation will be gradual, giving us time to adapt. It’s unlikely that Google is going to announce that it’s replacing 1000s of human workers with robots anytime soon.
It’s no secret that AIs can perform some routine tasks at a much faster rate, and to greater accuracy than a human ever could, but we vastly overestimate just how many jobs a robot can do. An often-cited 2013 study from Oxford University claims that nearly half of all jobs in the US (47%) are at risk of becoming fully automated in the next 20 years, but more recent research questions the accuracy of this prediction.
Robert D. Atkinson and John Wu of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation say the statistic is “just plain wrong”, and suggests the researchers did not correctly examine all US occupational categories. There are many job roles that will never be replaced by automation, not only because humans possess skills that AI cannot replicate, but because people need to interact with other people.
It’s one thing to use chatbots to deal with simple, easy-to-solve customer service problems and enquiries, but quite another to replace an entire call centre with an AI. How would your customers feel if there was no way for them to speak to a real person? Even in the age of electronic addiction, social interaction is still a basic need.
Roles which have social or creative aspects are likely to be safe from automation – it’s unlikely we’ll ever see robot models walking down a runway, or an AI judge deciding the fate of the accused.
Self-service machines, automated phone services and online banking apps weren’t invented to replace people, they were created to make our lives easier. The number of supermarket staff didn’t suddenly decline with the implementation of self-service, instead, the purpose of the machines is to increase employee productivity, as they free up staff members to perform other tasks, such as helping customers on the shop-floor. When stores get busy, self-service machines allow customer waiting times to be reduced, resulting in happier shoppers.
Pessimists may say that businesses would rather save money and replace their workforces with robots, but this simply isn’t true – it’s not what AI was designed for. A study from McKinsey Global Institute suggests that more than 90% of jobs will not be fully automated in the future. Instead, humans will work with AI, to increase productivity.
Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently said that workers need to be more productive, which will be achieved by automation.
“There is going to be jobs that are unfulfilled, and that the way we’ll fill them is to take people plus computers, and the computers will make people smarter,” he explained. “If you make people smarter, their wages go up. They don’t go down, and the number of jobs go up, not down.”
Schmidt might just have a point, as the US automotive industry recently saw a boom in employee numbers after automating its processes further. Between 2010 and 2015, 60,000 industrial robots were installed across the industry, and in the same period, the number of employees rose by 230,000.
At Feefo, we’ve introduced machine learning technology into our platform, to give businesses and consumers deeper insight, and to enable customer service teams to work more efficiently. We haven’t let go of any staff to bring this innovation to businesses, in fact, we’re growing faster than ever!
Technology has always replaced low-skill jobs – when’s the last time you saw a candlestick maker? And yet, that doesn’t mean it’s anything to fear. Unemployment rates are low, in both the UK and US, the industrial revolution didn’t see all humans replaced with machines, and the ‘second machine age’ won’t either.
When low-skill jobs are removed due to technological advances, they are inevitably replaced with higher-skilled (and therefore better paid) roles. Innovation is the only way society can move forward, allowing everyone to live better lives. We have access to technology which improves our personal and professional wellbeing, saving us time, making us more productive and keeping us better engaged with what we do.
If, historically, we’ve adapted well to the changes innovation and automation brings, why would the introduction of AI be any different? Robots may disrupt some job roles and industries, but they will help to create new ones, too.
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